A.G. Kawamura is fond of Mark Twain quotes. His recent Heuermann Lecture closing out the 2017 Daugherty Water for Food Conference in Lincoln, was titled, "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for living," a play on the famous Twain quote, "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting."
However, Kawamura's favorite quote from the 19th-century author is, "You can't depend on your judgment if your imagination is out of focus," he adds.
"Trusting your judgment at a time when you can't see into the future or you're refusing to acknowledge what the future has to offer is part of our challenge today," explains Kawamura, who raises produce in Southern California and served as California's secretary of agriculture from 2003 to 2010. Kawamura is also co-chairman for Solutions from the Land, a nonprofit that works with producers and other stakeholders to implement climate-smart land management practices.
An ongoing issue, Kawamura points out, is a reluctance to adopt new technology and new practices to mitigate the impacts of drought or flood and remain resilient in volatile weather, as well as an unwillingness to acknowledge the challenges facing agriculture.
This is what Kawamura refers to as “deferred thinking” — much like deferred maintenance. "We suffer all over from deferred maintenance," he says. "Sometimes by ignoring what's obvious you go through painful experiences. If you knew any better, is that ignorance or is it negligence when you don't act?"
In some cases, acting means updating deteriorating and outdated infrastructure, says Kawamura.
Kawamura notes an example in the Netherlands, where about 40% of the land area is below sea level. After being devastated by floods for centuries, the Netherlands have some of the most advanced flood control systems in the world — with sea defenses designed to withstand the impact of a flood occurring every 10,000 years in some parts of the country.
In many cases, countries are constrained to the point they have to adopt new infrastructure and technology, and Kawamura notes in the U.S., the clock is ticking for outdated infrastructure. "There's a lot of old infrastructure we have in our world, a lot of old infrastructure in our country. We've ignored it at our own peril," he says. "More importantly, we have a lot of great tools to redo things and change things."
These tools include desalination — removing and repurposing minerals from brackish waters to use as a fertilizer base, solar or wind-powered atmospheric water generators that produce potable water, mini-hydroelectric systems, and storing and transferring water in alternative ways.
"You could create great reservoirs out in the ocean that hold freshwater," Kawamura says. "At flood stage coming out of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1700s, you had ships 2 miles off the shore, loading up barrels of water that were drinkable because that's how much water was pouring out of the Chesapeake Bay at flood stage. So the ocean could be a great place to hold a lot of fresh water if we wanted to."
The tools are available to meet these challenges of production agriculture, but in order to move forward, Kawamura notes, different stakeholders — including farmers, ranchers and consumers — need to recognize the mutual challenge in front of them. To create and maintain abundance, agriculture must be successful — and that's an endeavor that agriculture shares with consumers.
"In that luxury of abundance sometimes this idea that food is a right is taken indirectly as something that we must provide, but that we're going to tell you how to raise," he says. "I say food is not a right; food is a privilege."
Kawamura notes the rising global demand for food and sustainability facing agriculture, including the projected 9 billion people agriculture will need to feed by 2050, as well as the United Nation's 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. "It becomes incumbent upon agriculture to lead the way and start saying quit fighting, quit thinking agriculture is part of the problem, when we're the only ones that hold the key to the solution for how we actually arrive at those goals," he says. "The day we arrive at those goals, we have a different world. It’s a day when whiskey will be for drinking and water will be for living."